Friday, January 11, 2013

What Americans Think About When We Think Of Japan

What image does Japan project to the rest of the world?
How do people in other countries see Japan?

I asked my friends and my wife and myself  for some ideas associated with
'The Land of the Rising Sun', and it's people. So, here's some of what came up... in no particular order (bara-bara de, ranking dewa-nai) when we ask:


Rice rolled in seaweed usually w/ (pickled) vegetables and/or raw fish
Different types of sushi
Raw Fish
 Americans have developed a love for sushi in recent years. Many sushi restaurants have popped up all across the country since about the 1980's. However, sushi restaurants that are actually owned and operated by Japanese people in the U.S. are quite rare. Sushi and "Japanese" restaurants in the U.S.A. are more often run by Korean, Chinese or even Vietnamese immigrants who have the wisdom to cash-in on (make money from) the sushi craze (sushi boom).

Moreover, American sushi is often different when compared with what you find in Japan. Most commonly, American sushi restaurants roll the seaweed (nori) on the inside and have the rice on the outside of the sushi roll! !!! Like this:
This is never seen in Japan. Westerners do this because seaweed is not seen as appetizing so they try to hide it! This also causes the sticky rice to dry-out swiftly! Crazy Americans!
One of the benefits of living in Japan is having easy access to delicious quality sushi at reasonable prices. Sometimes I pick up sushi at the supermarket on my way home after work. In late evening it drops to half price! In Japan a good quality large pizza is usually more expensive than a platter of sushi (which reminds me, I must write a blog about Japanese pizza and it's .....toppings.....).

Japanese sake (pronounced sah-kay) is rice wine. It comes in almost as many varieties as red wine. Sake, clear sake, sweet - cloudy sake, and many local varieties, served warm or chilled, is the perfect compliment to Japanese cuisine. Drunk daily after a long, hard day's work or on special ritualistic occasions such as New Year's or weddings, sake is the ubiquitous alcoholic drink of Japan.
Gekeikan sake is a personal favorite.

Sake is a form of alcoholic beverage; a rice wine to be precise, NOT a liquor or spirit such as whisky or vodka (for Japanese spirits you will want to try shochu or imo-shochu). 
The process of making sake is very interesting and even the by-products can be used in cosmetics like hand and face lotions, hair care products, baths etc...
Casks of Sake are often given as offerings at shrines and temples.

Toshiro Mifune exemplified the samurai spirit to international movie audiences in many films.
The Term samurai originally meant "those who serve in close attendance to nobility". Fierce and noble warriors akin to the European tradition of knighthood but with a style uniquely and deeply Japanese.
Willing to lay down their lives for their master's honor. Not the least case of which is their fame for ritual suicide (seppuku, or "Hara-Kiri" literally "Belly-Cut") when honor or respect required it. 

People  outside and inside Japan have an image of the samurai warrior that is largely shaped by cinema in general and the films of Akira Kurosawa in particular. Brilliant samurai films such as 'Seven Samurai', 'Yojimbo', and 'Sanjuro' are enduringly popular examples of samurai cinema.

Here is a 5 min. clip from 'Yojimbo'. Mifune plays a strong, quiet 'Ronin', a masterless samurai, who wanders into a village that's been taken over by two rival gangs of bad guys. By wit and moral strength he manages to turn the tables on the baddies and free the village from tyranny. Years later Hollywood remade it as a Western with Clint Eastwood in 'A Fist Full of Dollars'; (just as 'Seven Samurai' was reincarnated as 'The Magnificent Seven').

The samurai spirit is still alive and well in modern day Japan in the ubiquitous....


Exhausted, over-worked, stressed-out, borderline suicidal,  enduring the slings and arrows of a pitiless corporate world based on a militaristic code of responsibility to meet impossible demands in a short period of time within a pecking-order plagued with bullying as much as any Japanese high school student.

I think this brief anime accurately shows the daily struggle of your average Japanese salaryman 
(o.k., not really. I just thought it was funny):

Speaking of samurai salaryman, that brings us to...

Silent but deadly
The kanji character for 'Nin' carries the double meaning of "To walk very softly" & "To bear what is unbearable". These shadowy and mysterious assassins were as deceptive and clever as the samurai were noble and brave. They actually play a very small part in Japan's history, merely an odd footnote; but their fascinating aura and skills with exotic weapons and devices, plus their habit of working deadly magic in the dead of night, have exploded their actual historical relevance beyond all reality and insured them a place in American pop culture. Or, maybe, it was the secret nature of their art and their intention not to leave a mark in the history books! Hhmmmm....

They often lived normal lives to all outward appearances: farmers, pharmacologists, merchants; but they had a secret underground society in which they perfected martial skills, techniques of swift (or slow) death, the use of drugs and poisons, pyrotechnics, occult techniques said to give invisibility and strength. They were assassins for hire. While the samurai were bound by a code of honor (Bushido), the ninja were not above fighting dirty. In fact, they excelled at just that! Also, there were female ninja (kunoichi) while samurai was for men only.

But to really see the feminine side of Japan we must take a look at...

6. GEISHA / MAIKO and Ladies wearing KIMONOS
What can I say about Geisha that has not already been said a million times, whether true or untrue?
 I have had the pleasure of observing a public traditional dance and musical performance by Maiko (young apprentice Geisha) in Kyoto a few New Years ago. The elegance, grace, beauty, style and severe professionalism of these women is remarkable. They are rare even in Japan, but to catch a glimpse is to make your heart beat a little faster and take your breath away. Consummate entertainers and hostesses trained for years to the the highest possible degree in various arts and traditions, these beautiful and skilled women are for many Americans the "face of Japan". 

However, seeing women wearing kimonos is a normal everyday occurrence here in Japan. Usually older women (or sometimes younger women) on their way to flower arranging or tea ceremony lessons. I always marvel at how they manage to get around and look so good in a kimono. I used to think the obi (sash) had some kind of backpack in back but no, that's just how it's worn, she's not packing a tea set back there! But she may be stashing something in those sleeves!


'My Neighbor Totorro' is one of Hayao Miyazaki's exceptional anime films produced by Ghibli studios.
Typical anime girl
IT IS EVERYWHERE!!!! You can't escape it ! Anime is here to stay! I really have only a mild, occasional interest in certain anime films so I'm not really familiar with it. It's a huge industry here in Japan! Massive manga magazines (and smaller ones too) are overflowing in the bookshops here. Big-eyed, androgynous, colorfully dressed, cute characters with cat ears stare at you from pachinko parlors, train stations, restaurants, the supermarket... EVERYWHERE! In recent years the boom has spread abroad and Pokemon, Dragonball and Deathnote are now household words in the U.S.. The best films are those directed by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. They are artistically stunning, and the stories carry deep, universal, human messages.

One of my favorite things in childhood was watching monster movies. O.k., actually it still is one of my favorite things. My first exposure to Japanese culture was through big monster movies, especially Godzilla. Or, Godzilla vs. King Kong, or Godzilla vs. Mothra, or Godzilla vs. Rodan etc... I was hooked immediately! The monsters were cool, the Japanese actors and the settings seemed exotic to me. 

Did you know that the original Godzilla film appeared in 1954? Only 9 years after the end of WWII? The original Godzilla is a cathartic image of radioactive destruction on a massive scale... a giant, moving, radioactive fire-breathing, city-stomping nightmare which inevitably brings us to the hardest associations we Americans have of Japan....

I am at a loss for words on this subject. I will let a few pictures speak for themselves. All I want to say is that this happened within living memory. People are still alive today who lived through these experiences and saw these images as they happened.
Atomic bomb mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)

Surprise Attack on Pearl Harbor

Japanese-American Internment
Japanese American Internment Camp
Japanese-American family being sent to internment camp

They died saying "Water, Water! I thirst!"

Japanese soldier executing a POW (Prisoner of  War)
I'll just say one more thing on this topic: 
War is as empty, ugly and cold as a 2 day old corpse.

But let's not dwell on the sad, sad past. Many of my friends have remarked on how well behaved, how civilized, Japanese people are in the midst of mass destruction and devastation. When the Earthquake & Tsunami hit Japan in March 2011, the planet sat stunned watching the images, not only of the incredible devastation, but of how people would stand waiting in line for hours for water or supplies and didn't start running around looting or doing harm or committing crimes as we've seen happen so often in the U.S.A. after major hurricanes. This is because of 


Yes, Japan has a rather militaristic flavor which I sense has something to do with Bushido, the way of the samurai from ancient times. For example, people are called by their family (last) names, from school age on up to work, and even among old friends. "Military time" is standard here (1600 instead of 4pm). While this culture may be stiff and rigid and with unbending rules that will bend your mind (as compared with America) there is a sense of respect and tradition, and a sense of "we" being bigger than "I". This is a tough pill to swallow for an individualistic American such as myself. This also has a terrible side which is obvious in the stress on conformity and "Harmony" (read: don't complain, and don't voice your truth) resulting in a high ratio of bullying and suicide.

 Ideally Americans could get a little more restraint and discipline from the Japanese. And in return, Japanese could learn how to take it easy, to not work quite so hard and slavishly and to spend more quality time with their families (however, this would require an entire overhaul of the massive coiling tentacles of bureaucracy - see a previous blog of mine for that particular subject). 

There is a joke in Japan about 7-11. You know, 7-11? That's standard working hours for Japanese. Or how about starting a loving relationship with a real person instead of a virtual relationship with an anime character on their iPhone (but hey, whatever makes you happy). 
If only they can get the time off from work to have a relationship. 

But this tradition of respect manifests in a very low overall crime rate so they must be doing something right. I mean, I can leave by bag with my stuff in it sitting on a seat in a cafe or on a subway platform bench and go to the bathroom and expect to find it sitting just as I left it when I return. That's respect. That's being civilized. 

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